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Mac-based Music Server - Is this system as good as I can get?


hdomke

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First things first. There is always someone who knows more about any given topic no matter who you are. So, here are my suggestions and I look forward to learning a bit myself as other people lend a hand.

 

Here we go.

 

I have many questions about your diagram, but these should be flesched out as we go.

 

The first thing I would do is remove the Airport Express from the system. That device only supports 16 bit / 44.1 audio. If you really want high end sound you should be able to play 24 bit / 96 KHz music because it is becoming more prevelent through high resolution download sites such as Linn Records. Don't worry about this if you only plan to listen to music at or less than 16/44.1.

 

I would connect the RAID array directly to the Airport Base station. The disk then becomes a NAS drive. This allows you a little more leeway.

 

Would you consider moving your desktop Mac out into your listening room as a headless unit (without a monitor)? I know many people don't want computers next to their systems. This would replace your Airport Express and allow higher resolution music via USB or Toslink as long as the DAc & Mac support both (newer Macs do). Then use an application like NetTunes to control the Desktop's iTunes from your laptop at your listening position.

 

This is a start and I'm sure we can fine tune this configuration with a little more conversation here.

 

Ideally I would use a Mac Mini connected directly to the DAC and use an iPod Touch to control your music from your listening chair. But, since this system uses existing equipment we'll leave these suggestions alone.

 

What do you think?

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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Nice diagram, really helps. I printed it and am scribbling thoughts all over the thing.

 

Doesn't USB or firewire outperform the Toslink? I think I learned that here.

 

Chris -

"Ideally I would use a Mac Mini connected"

 

Why put your storage whether it be drobo or raid or whatever thru a wireless connection to the mini? Why not just plug direct to the mini via USB in, then out to the DAC usb out? Especially if the airport limit is 16/44.1?

 

 

 

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1. "Doesn't USB or firewire outperform the Toslink? I think I learned that here."

 

I have heard both yes and no, but I do think USB will out perform Toslink. There are no USb products on the market now that will do anything higher than 24/96. not that this is a must, just a fact for now. Gordon has a lot of information on USB outperforming other methods.

 

2. "Why put your storage whether it be drobo or raid or whatever thru a wireless connection to the mini? Why not just plug direct to the mini via USB in, then out to the DAC usb out? Especially if the airport limit is 16/44.1?"

 

I recommend this because a Mini is so unintrusive and I think the direct connection to the DAC is more important than the direct connection to the disk. Putting the disk in another room is less intrusive as well and could cut down on noise depending how loud your disk is. The Airport is not limited to 16/44.1, it is the Airport Express that is limited. The built-in Airport card in the Mini would just transfer the music files as data, then output them through iTunes to the DAC.

 

 

Are we on the same page? let me know if I missed something or you think I'm wrong. I love reading other people's ideas.

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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Same page, yup. I'd probably just put the drives in a cabinet nearby. Agree the drive sound is the issue there, (to me drobo looks visually kind of interesting). With a Macbook it would also be one less wire to fiddle with assumming Macbook USB to DAC and airport connect to remote drives. Thanks again.

 

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Toslink is inferior to S/PDIF coax because it introduces a lot more jitter. There are those that have had a good experience with Toslink, but this is because there were noisy ground-loops in their systems that the Toslink eliminated. They likely tried either computer S/PDIF coax direct, a poor coax cable, or a USB converter without galvanic isolation.

 

With good USB converters, you can get the same galvanic isolation that Toslink affords, and get the benefit of much lower jitter as well. A good S/PDIF cable is critical.

 

This is not snake-oil. S/PDIF coax or AES/EBU has the potential to outperform Toslink every time. Toslink is just technically inferior.

 

Steve N.

 

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Steven N.

You wrote "Toslink is inferior to S/PDIF coax"

I am certainly not one to know if that is true, but I did call and speak at length to the very nice tech people at Benchmark. They were insistent that "Toslink is identical to S/PDIF coax, we've measured it carefully and there is just no disputing it"

 

Do you think he was incorrect?

 

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Innertuber,

"Nice diagram"

Thanks. I just think better when I have pictures, but since I earn my living as an artist, I guess that makes sense.

I just added more pictures to the website that had the diagram:

Pictures and drawings of my planned Music Server System

You wrote" Doesn't USB or firewire outperform the Toslink?"

According to the Benchmark Tech people the answer is clearly no.

"They are identical"

Call them up yourself and see what they say.

 

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Chris,

Thanks for your thoughts!

Let me see if I can understand what you are suggesting.

 

"The first thing I would do is remove the Airport Express from the system. That device only supports 16 bit / 44.1 audio."

But at this point I am only using music burned from my Redbook CDs. Aren't they all 16 bit / 44.1?

 

Perhaps I will use higher bit files later (but perhaps not), but then Apple will probably have a higher-bit Airport Express. Hi-res files are few and far between now and I am not 100% sure they will be better.

 

Did you see the research that says that that experienced listeners can't tell the difference between SACD and Redbook CD? The Audio Critic Blog

posted this: “In the September 2007 issue of the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society (Volume 55, Number 9), …a breakthrough paper that contradicts all previous inputs by the engineering community. They prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, with literally hundreds of double-blind listening tests at matched levels, conducted over a period of more than a year, that there’s no audible difference between the original CD standard (“Red Book”) and 24-bit/192-kHz PCM or 1-bit/2.8442-MHz DSD.”

 

"I would connect the RAID array directly to the Airport Base station."

Does it support anything more than 16 bit / 44.1? If not, why do that?

 

"Would you consider moving your desktop Mac out into your listening room"

No way, that is used in my studio where I make art. I have the Apple Xserve RAID store all my images.

 

However, my wife has a one-year old Mac laptop that she does not need.

It could function as a direct source. But are you sure it would be better than what I have diagramed.

 

 

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Cool, now we have some good ides going back & forth.

 

If you're only doing 16/44.1 then you are OK with the Airport Express. I'm not sure the AE is a real audiophile solution without very a very good DAC, reclocker etc... I know Steve used this at T.H.E. Show in one of his configurations and it would be nice if he would give his opinion on the Airport Express.

 

I seriously doubt Apple will release a higher bit rate AE. Just my thoughts.

 

I did see both the pieces you mention, the Audio Critic and the AES paper. I do agree 100% that a certain format in and of itself is not better than another format. But, I think using a properly mastered piece of music that an audiophile is extremely familiar with will reveal very audible differences between formats over time. For example the Dire Straits Brothers in Arms CD versus the SACD. The CD is of course 16/44.1, but the SACD is said to be taken from the 16/48 master. Could an audiophile tell the difference between the two? Who knows. I guess what I am saying is anyone that comes out and says "Proven: Good Old Redbook CD Sounds the Same as the Hi-Rez Formats", like the Audio Critic said, seems to have an agenda. An absolute statement such as this is bound to be disproved. Anyway, I am going by me own ears and if I can hear a difference than I am going for higher resolution audio. If certain people don't hear a difference than they are somewhat lucky because there is a lot of equipment that supports 16/44.1. Anyway, back to the topic.

 

The Airport Extreme supports any bit rate because it is only passing the music through a standard file transfer, not converting the music like a DAC or similar device.

 

Of course your situation is unique to you, but I would use the macbook directly connected. I haven't checked out the other diagrams yet, but I will now and update this if needed.

 

What are your thoughts?

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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Especially on the -- "I guess what I am saying is anyone that comes out and says "Proven: Good Old Redbook CD Sounds the Same as the Hi-Rez Formats", like the Audio Critic said, seems to have an agenda. An absolute statement such as this is bound to be disproved." -- part Chris.

 

Question: Where does (or, where do you think) the 'sound' of good old analog recordings fall into this ' digital bit bashing' argument, exactly?

 

What I mean is, that when analog sound was the only kind there was, you heard all about this turntable/tape player - cartridge - vinyl pressing, blah blah blah, being better or worse than another. Sometimes when listening, I could hear it, sometimes I could not.

 

Did the arrival or nearing-perfection of digital audio end the afformentioned type of argument? Nope. Why not?

 

Could it be that we don't yet have that simple term of "sound" fully defined or explored? I have to say that I "FEEL" that the answer to my unscientific question is obviously paranormal in scope. That is (one reason) why I love sound.

 

markr

Shut Up and LISTEN - 'Loudspeaker' - skate nigs

 

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I've been harping about sound quality in my articles for The Sensible Sound for about 20 years, now, and it really does come down to how well an engineer can work with his project to begin with. Then there are so many other variables that come into play that it's just impossible for someone to say that format X is better than Y — at least as far as individual recordings are concerned.

 

Take, for example, that Dire Straits album that Chris was mentioning. I had a prerelease copy of the LP about 2 months before that was released back in 1985, and I remember to this day thinking how shoddy that thing sounded (great record, though). Back then we had no access to review CDs just yet, so I had to wait for it to show up in a local shop so that I could take a listen and compare. I thought then that the only edge the CD had over the record was that one of the tunes wasn't truncated. 20 years pass, and I buy that SACD, and I was just amazed at how different it sounded. As far as this being the SACD medium being responsible for the differences, though, I got to say NO with a capital N. I think it was Bob Irwin who did this originally, and he might have had a hand in the reissue too, but IIRC the big difference was in the care taken to redo the album. Of course, IMO, there have been just as many Hi-Rez reissues that sound WORSE than the original CDs, but then, we all listen with different ears and on different equipment.

 

As to the setup of a system, I thank Chris for restating here what he taught me a month ago. I am on my way, but without a final decision on the DAC that will connect my Mini to my audio system. What he has outlined here is exactly how I plan to put mine together: Music HD > Airport Base Station > Headless Mini in the listening room > iPod Touch as the remote.

 

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"If you're only doing 16/44.1 then you are OK with the Airport Express."

At this point it is 100% of my music.

What percent of your music is high-res? 1% ? SACD files are copy protected, so the only source of high-res files are a couple of web sites without much content. Isn't that right?

 

"I'm not sure the AE is a real audiophile solution without very a very good DAC, reclocker etc.."

I am using the Benchmark DAC1 connected to the AE via Toslink.

There are dozens of reviews that would put the DAC1 in the audiophile camp. Do you agree?

 

"The Airport Extreme supports any bit rate because it is only passing the music through a standard file transfer, not converting the music like a DAC or similar device."

I didn't know that, thanks.

If I am skipping the D/A aspect of the AE by using digital output, is the rate still constrained?

 

"I would use the macbook directly connected."

Are you saying that because it is a simpler system that is hard wired and therefore conceptually more elegant, or is your opinion based on blind A:B comparisons?

 

"What are your thoughts?"

I've implemented the plan shown in the picture on my website .

It seems to working perfectly. I've used it for several days.

The fact that I can sit with the laptop in my listening chair with no wires and control the process via iTunes appeals strongly to my couch potato tendencies.

 

However, my amp and speakers are very mediocre right now, so they may not reveal deficiencies of this system. My Classe mono-block amps and B&W 800D speakers will take the system up a notch, but I won't have those for another 7 or 8 weeks.

 

 

 

 

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For now high resolution content is limited as you said. It is kind of similar to SACD though. Titles were very limited at first.

 

I do put the DAC1 in the audiophile category. For the price you can't beat it. I'm using one right now with HD600s connected to the headphone out. Very good sound.

 

Even if you skip the DAC in the AE it still is limited because iTunes is sending the music to the AE whereas iTunes is pulling the data from your drive connected to the Airport Exterme just like it would an internal hard drive.

 

I still suggest the direct connection just because of the AE limitation. I am also thinking about the suggestion found in these forums that USB is superior to other methods. Direct connect gives you that USB connection.

 

Your implementation is great. There is no perfect setup for everyone. If there was this hobby would be real boring because we would all have the same thing! Don't forget you can use the iPod Touch to control iTunes from your listening chair. (just another plug for direct connect and still have remote capability.)

 

I was thinking the same thing about your system as it currently stands. When you get the 802D speakers in there you may bring out some stuff you don't like. When I first put my 802s into my system I was very unsatisfied with some other components I had. You never know though. I really like the choice of Classe and B&W 802D. Those are one of my favorite speakers. In fact I listed them in one of my articles on the site about a great sounding system I listened to one day.

 

Thanks for keeping us all in the loop.

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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Since Chris suggested using a wired system, I drew out a possible plan

You can see it labeled "Plan B" on my website.

 

What I don't understand is: How do I control it from my sitting chair. I'm enough of a couch potato that I would prefer to not walk over to the stereo.

 

I have heard about using:

iPhone (which I own)

Apples tiny Remote Device with "Front Row"

iTouch

 

Exactly how would each be used and what are the pro's and con's of each?

 

Thanks!

 

 

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Hi Henry - Controlling iTunes from your listening chair is pretty easy. I agree it would not be good to have all your music accessible in iTunes only to have to get up every time to change a song. I certainly wouldn't stand for it (unless it was vinyl).

 

If you already own an iPhone you're set!

 

Here is the link to an article I wrote about using an iPhone/iPod Touch for this purpose. Resolution Audio was also using this method at CES and it was very slick.

 

Let me know if you have questions or whatever.

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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Chris,

Thanks for the link to what you wrote on "Signal"

I sent the link to my computer support person (I'm not a Geek, so even on a Mac I need help). He wrote this back to me:

I downloaded Signal to try to connect to my iTunes from my iPhone.

 

What can I say..... Unbelievable!!! This has got to be the answer. So cool. Brings the art to the iPhone to see it. This is a great find.

 

Try it! Very simple..

 

 

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hi Henry - I warned you that I am following in your footsteps. I just discovered the site and I hope you don't mind if I steal some ideas from you. Incidentally we just got our Benchmark today and, after a very short time with it, have been rather impressed. I saw on another thread that someone didn't want to hijack Henry's topic and somehow knew it was you. You should have shared the site - I would have given you a great deal on your high end cables (I know, inside joke). Regards, Rick/Audioport

 

Audio Research DAC8, Mac mini w/8g ram, SSD, Amarra full version, Audio Research REF 5SE Preamp, Sutherland Phd, Ayre V-5, Vandersteen 5A\'s, Audioquest Wild and Redwood cabling, VPI Classic 3 w/Dynavector XX2MkII

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Gang,

 

First understand that the Airport Express uses a PCM2706 to do the audio and toslink output. This is a usb audio controller and the AE looks kinda like this:

 

Airport Host Processor Ethernet

USB Printer port USB Controller PCM2706 ====> Audio ~~~~~ Toslink

 

Therefore the Toslink on the AE really sucks. Well in most cases Toslink really sucks.

 

A better way to do what you are doing is this:

 

Airport Extreme USB Hard Drive for library storage.

 

MAC Mini USB DAC to Audio System

 

Apple iTouch with Signal or Remote Buddy for control or Salling Clicker with Blue Tooth device.

 

Thanks

Gordon

 

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if you are using the airport express in a dedicated audio setup, you will need to reduce the jitter coming out of the airport express. i am using an audio alchemy dti device that is hooked up to the airport express. i then go into my audio dac using a digital coax cable. huge difference in sound.

 

also, reading some of the threads about using 16 bit dacs. it is not always true that the 24 bit dacs are better than the older 16/20bit units. i evaluated quite a few dacs a little while ago and ended up purchasing a $3500 20bit dac. check out for yourself to see which units you prefer.

 

i use multiple airport express units throughout the house that distributes my itunes music to different systems (not for my dedicated audio system just yet, that will be happening very soon) with good success and i control the itunes remotely using an ipod touch or macbook.

 

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Hi Gordon

 

This is Rick from the store in KC that has been talking to you about becoming a dealer. Bear with me here. Our trial setup is using a MacBook. I have an Airport Extreme and two 500GB hard drives in one chassis. I want to make sure that I am not misunderstanding; I can have the hard drives located in a different location, adjacent to the Airport extreme and then output the wifi signal from the drives via the USB on the laptop into the USB DAC into my preamp. Assuming that I did understand that correctly, I assume I can rip CD's from the MacBook drive back to the hard drives via the Airport Extreme as well.

 

If that is all correct, is there any down side to performance? This would be an ideal setup for many applications.

 

Thanks

Rick

 

Audio Research DAC8, Mac mini w/8g ram, SSD, Amarra full version, Audio Research REF 5SE Preamp, Sutherland Phd, Ayre V-5, Vandersteen 5A\'s, Audioquest Wild and Redwood cabling, VPI Classic 3 w/Dynavector XX2MkII

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Hi Rick - The configuration you are asking about is exactly what I do at home. My hard drives are connected to my Airport Extreme in another room. This is a great setup and lowers the noise level considerably in my listening room. Then I just connect my MacBook Pro to my USB DAC in my listening room and all is good.

 

You can do everything this way that you could previously do with the hard drives connected directly via USB. The downsides are minimal, but should be considered. Ripping is slower because the music must go to the remote drive. More importantly is the wireless performance and ow it can effect the sound. I've done some experimenting with this and have absolutely no problems or sound degradation with my current configuration. I turned off all wireless security such as WEP and WPA. I use other security controls to limit outside access to my network such as MAC filtering and not broadcasting my network name. Nothing is foolproof when it comes to security, but this is more than good for me.

 

More on sound quality. Please keep in mind that the Airport Extreme is vastly different from the Airport Express. The Extreme just sends data to iTunes like a local hard drive would. The Express sends music to your DAC after going through iTunes. Thus there is no effect on sound quality when using the Extreme as long as your network performance/speed is good. As Gordon said earlier, the Express has major impacts on sound and requires "mitigating" equipment to improve sound.

 

Let us know if this still leaves unanswered questions.

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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